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Exclusive Jolyon Palmer Q&A: I have to seize Lotus chance

26 Jan 2015

Jolyon Palmer may now stand on the brink of realising a childhood dream after signing to be Lotus's third driver for 2015, but he also knows he will have to work harder than ever to turn his new role into a permanent F1 race drive. In a candid interview, the 2014 GP2 champion sets out his goals for the forthcoming season and explains why joining Lotus was a 'no brainer', even if other third drivers haven't always capitalised on their roles...

Q: Congratulations on landing a third driver role with Lotus for 2015. Can you tell us how it came about? What were the timescales - and had you been talking to other teams?
Jolyon Palmer: 
We first started talks in the summer last year. At that point we were looking good in the GP2 championship [Palmer was 43 points clear at the top of the standings heading into August]. We were looking for a race seat, so we started speaking with all the teams we could. Slowly the seats filled - or dropped away - so first things first, we put a deal together with Force India to test in Abu Dhabi. They were our main contact over the winter too. Then Lotus called up. We had already had talks in 2014, so we went from there, and it all came together quite quickly. They were keen to have me on board, offered me good track time and complete immersion within the team, so all the boxes were ticked.

Q: You'll be driving in a ‘significant number' of Friday practice sessions for Lotus as part of your deal. Was mileage the golden ticket?
Exactly. That was the most important part of getting a deal together, because track time is so difficult to come by with nine teams and one car per test day. The number of people who have got relevant track time in a current F1 car is not high, so to secure that was definitely the best thing I could do. But I'll also be totally involved in a race weekend - I'll be in debriefs, talks with the engineers, team meetings and so on. Everything goes towards a better chance for the future really. Hopefully it will all make me a good candidate for a 2016 drive if opportunities come about.

Q: While GP2 has a rich tradition of past champions graduating into F1, the last time a champion went straight into a race seat in F1 was Romain Grosjean in 2011. For you, does a reserve role offer the best chance of a permanent drive next year?
Yeah. I think the Lotus deal was a bit of a no brainer to be honest. There was nothing available in terms of a race seat - and you hear stories even now about other teams making the grid, but you're dealing with a lot of unknowns there. For me it is about aiming for F1 in the future. Basically the best way to do that is be a third driver and get as much mileage as possible and work extremely closely with a team - that gives me more experience and helps further my own potential. And in terms of the offers we had - track time and potential to work with the team - Lotus was the best. They're hopefully a team moving forward too, especially from last year.

And actually, I thought about this while racing last year. The thing with [Fabio] Leimer and [Davide] Valsecchi, the two previous GP2 champions, was that they weren't in F1. So I thought for me to make a difference, simply winning the title wouldn't be enough: I needed to go out and dominate. That was my mentality from the start, to grab the championship by the scruff of the neck. I think I did that. I won it with three races to go, and I think Grosjean was the last man to do that. I was confident, driving the best I have probably in my entire career, and things came together.

Q: Did Lotus's struggles last year enter into your decision making?
It was a disappointing year for them, but they still have a tremendous base - they look like a team that can win a championship when you go to their factory and see their facilities. The history is there too, so they have great potential to get back to where they were before. Obviously the switch to Mercedes [engines] is huge - I'm expecting that to make a big difference. And then it's about the aero on the car, which the guys seem to be reasonably confident about. We will see over the next few weeks, but the whole mood at the moment is very positive.

Q: In terms of reserve drivers finding permanent drives the following season, there are several recent examples - most notably Valtteri Bottas at Williams - but also several precedents the other way. What do you need to do to impress this year?
Like you say, there are a lot of drivers who haven't been able to capitalise on the situation. For me, it's the obvious stuff really. I'll be working closely with Lotus, so I need to learn as much as I can, and when I'm in the car translate that into doing the best job possible - which means being quick, giving good feedback, and not crashing (laughs). From there it's not always in your own hands: it comes down to timing to an extent, and also how desirable I am to put in the car. But the main thing is this deal gives me a chance to do something. I have to seize that. That is the aim: to do a good job and hope they want to put me in the car next year.

Q: So are Lotus your only focus for a 2016 drive? Or will you sound out other teams too?
The only focus at the moment is to make the most of my role with Lotus. In terms of my future, they're also the obvious focus because they'll know me best. I'll be working directly with the whole team, so they'll see what I can do. But that's not to say I can't drive anywhere else. They're a great team with great potential, but I'm looking to race in Formula One…

Q: On that note, how strange will it be to sit on the brink of F1, but also find yourself not actually competing?
I've been racing every year since 2005, so it will be strange. It's the only bit of sadness I have about the Lotus deal actually, that I am not set to be racing. I love competing - I think every driver does. But it's about looking at the bigger picture. I'll be working with a Formula One team, and getting significant mileage in the car. That will all give me a better chance for next year.

Q: Is there any sense of envy looking at drivers like Felipe Nasr, whom you beat in GP2 last year, but who has landed a race deal for 2015 with Sauber?
Particularly Nasr? No. I beat him last year, he has got a seat this year - there's nothing I can do about that. Some people get different opportunities, but I don't think about what other people can or can't do too much. I just have to focus on being the best I can be and hope I get rewarded if I do a good job. But I am envious of all grid in general, because those guys are all doing exactly what I want to do: race in F1.

Q: And finally, your father Jonathan contested more than 80 Grands Prix himself between 1983 and 1989. How useful is he as a sounding board, and to have in the background?
He's got a tonne of experience - he's been there are done it - so he's definitely very useful for me to have. But he has also taken more of a back seat every year that I have been racing, as I've improved in the car and grown as a person out of it. That's been very important too. In terms of my driving, my relationships with teams, he doesn't get involved at all now. I can bounce things off him - I'm always doing that with everyone I can to try and get different ideas, even if I don't then take them and do what they say. And if there's something I feel he can have a viewpoint on that can help, he's very useful for that.